Run Catch Kiss

The Jerusalem Report

“Amy All Over” – by Sarah Wildman – August 30, 1999

Sex columnist, novelist and screenwriter Amy Sohn says her parents have no problem with her success — ‘they just don’t talk about my work itself.’

It’s only 7:30 — and a Wednesday night — but Joe’s Pub in the East Village is packed with hip thin women in tube tops and men with good haircuts and thick funky glasses. Everyone clutches a bright yellow copy of Amy Sohn’s new book “Run Catch Kiss,” about a young, Jewish, Brown University graduate who becomes a sex columnist for a free New York weekly paper.

The publishers, Simon & Schuster, have rented the space to launch the book, and Sohn, a young, Jewish, Brown University graduate who writes a sex column for the free New York Press, cruises around the room in a “vintage” pink floral dress and heels. She stops to make introductions between a handful of guests. “This is a fellow columnist from the New York Press,” she says, grabbing the arm of a young man who, at 18, is a good six years younger than Sohn. “We hooked up at a party and broke up his relationship,” she says, smiling mischievously as she walks away. Her audience looks expectantly at the kid who blushes and murmurs, “actually, she just kissed me on her way out.”

Life imitating art imitating life — the line between Sohn’s lived experiences and her fictional tales redefines the word “blurry.” In her recently published roman à clef, Sohn brings a lot of herself to the page, as she chronicles the tale of Ariel Steiner, a pretty, zaftig, Jewish girl with deep dimples and a thin scar under her chin. Steiner, like her creator, left Brown hoping to resume a childhood acting career; instead of the stage, she discovers a talent for the erotic tale that lands her the columnist job. But, Sohn says, though she initially thought of publishing a non-fiction collection of her essays, the book is “only 50 or 60 percent heavily grounded in reality.” She abandoned her initial project when she realized the comedic potential of drawing on, and exaggerating, her own experiences. “On the surface the character and I are really similar,” allows Sohn, who physically appears, down to the scar and dimples, to be the incarnation of her character. “But, even when you’re recounting an event that really happened, the way you twist it around, to kind of find the story there, to me it’s all fiction. I think a lot of the books that are coming out and are called memoirs nowadays, if they had come out 30 years ago they would be called first novels.”

And so Ariel Steiner was born. Ariel, like Sohn, begins her career by chronicling the tales of her personal sexual exploits in racy, unadulterated language that treads a fine line between erotica, pornography and brazen confessional (an Anaïs Nin for the 90s, perhaps, if a bit less poetic). In this, both Sohn and Steiner are a lot like the author of “Sex and the City,” Candace Bushnell; in fact, Sohn’s column has been called a “downtown version” of Bushnell’s former Observer column, turned book, turned cable TV series. Ariel’s foibles as sex columnist land her in a peculiarly modern predicament: The “real” Ariel just wants stability, a boyfriend, preferably Jewish; the columnist Ariel is brazenly promiscuous, sleeping with anyone, anywhere, at any time (including some fairly unsavory places, like a skin-flick booth on 42nd St.). It’s as if Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” character Isadora Wing was reincarnated in the mid-90s, without the benefit of any progress women might have made in 25 years. Sohn’s Ariel Steiner embodies a sort of extreme feminist ideal, seeking success and love, reputation be damned, with an ultimately conservative twist: She sleeps around and hates it; she’s so successful, she’s notorious; she’s so voyeuristic that she barely participates in her own life.

“Run Catch Kiss” is a quick read, written in a style that’s more of an intimate chat with friends than high art, but it’s certainly savvy. Sohn paints a realistic portrait of the 90s post-college work world, with Ariel and all of her friends working in low-level, mind-numbing jobs — either in an attempt to supplement their meager artist’s incomes or out of lack of options. Sohn’s talent is in capturing the experience of smart young women in their 20s overqualified for the positions available to them (her descriptions of temping are dead-on) and uncertain of what direction they would take even if all avenues were open to them.

The book is filled with iconic American cultural references that will have intensely specific meaning for her audience but might pass right by anyone who wasn’t born in the early to mid-70s. For example, Sohn describes the story of Ariel losing her virginity, lamenting that her “devirginator” wasn’t as “sweet and doting as John Cusack with Ione [Skye] under that blanket in the backseat of his Malibu,” referring to a scene legendary for its poignant portrayal of first-time sex. Now, that may be quite funny to someone who came of age during the era when Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film “Say Anything…” achieved near-cult status, but would everyone get it? Sohn refers to a steady stream of pictures with quirky characters who struggle along until they — sigh — find perfect love. She hints at scenes from John Hughes films, and from “Bull Durham” and “When Harry Met Sally,” creating a virtual slide show of all the romantic films that filled the dreams of teens in the late 80s and early 90s, to which “the real thing,” when it finally came along, could never measure up.

Sohn’s book isn’t just paradigmatic of a narrow cultural moment in history. It’s also an intensely Jewish novel. All of Sohn’s major characters are Jewish, from Ariel’s best friend Sara, who was the “president of her temple youth group,” to a majority of her various paramours, to, of course, her very present parents. Sohn maintains that she wanted to create a positive (read: eroticized) image of Jews. “I still feel Jewish men in modern society are totally emasculated,” says Sohn. “Jerry Seinfeld is more of a comic icon than a ‘hot’ one.” So when Ariel discovers a potential boyfriend is Jewish, it only increases her arousal. Consider this scene between Ariel and Adam Lynn:

“‘What kind of name is Ariel?’

“‘Hebrew. It means lion of God. It’s also one of the names for Jerusalem.’

“‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘I forgot. We learned that in cheder.’

“‘Did you say cheder?’ I asked tremulously.

“‘Yeah. My father made me go to an Orthodox Hebrew school until my bar mitzvah.’

“My underpants slid down to my ankles.”

Sohn says that being Jewish was always a positive for her, and she infuses her characters with that. “I never felt the desire to rebel. You know how in ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ he can only be attracted to the shiksa goddess,” she says, noting that perhaps the difference is a generational one. On paper, and in conversation, Sohn is constantly placing herself within a very knowing cultural context — drawing parallels and differences between herself and her characters and the books and movies that defined her

upbringing. “I wanted to create a character that wasn’t self-hating … I definitely didn’t want [Ariel] to end up with a goy — like in that God-awful movie ‘A Price above Rubies.’” So, instead of rebelling by going against the “tribe,” Sohn and Steiner rebel with their bodies. “This is a character who is not afraid to challenge the status quo, for better and for worse,” Sohn reflects. “So she is rebelling against her parents by pursuing this unconventional career path. But at the same time, she’s caught between this incredibly instinctive desire to make her parents proud versus wanting to make her own place in the world, and do so in a risqué way.”

Sohn adds that she too always wanted to please her parents — not get away from them — but that her own unconventional career choice has created a family dynamic not unlike that of her character. “My parents have no problem talking about my success or my career, they just don’t talk about my work itself.”

Ariel’s world follows much the same course. Without having to worry about the potential hindrance of growing up Jewish — like, say, Portnoy — Ariel is able to focus her world on sex and success — and the melding of the two. “I had always wanted to be someone who could walk into a room and have her reputation precede her,” Sohn writes in the opening scene of the book. But, despite her bravado, Ariel is unable to achieve orgasm with anyone but herself; another metaphor, perhaps, for her discomfort in the

post-feminist role she has created. Sohn as Steiner thus draws a character within the character — the “columnist” — who, lacking all inhibitions, is increasingly less related to the “real” Ariel Steiner.

Looking for ever-more fantastic sexual exploits to bring to the page, Ariel begins to fabricate experiences. Buoyed by her success (and, perhaps, trapped by it), she starts to write fiction in order to win the affection of a disinterested boyfriend. In Ariel’s quest for success and love through fiction, Sohn brings in another specific cultural moment — a light mocking of the depressing-but-true story of the ex-New Republic writer Stephen Glass, who, rather than slow down his prolific article production schedule, began to simply fabricate entire stories. “What if Stephen Glass lied for love?” asks Sohn, who uses that premise in the book. “How would it have been different? … Because I think we can sympathize with someone who is doing something for a ‘good’ goal — like love.”

Sohn’s personal drive for success runs far beyond her column and her book. She recently wrote a screenplay for a film — “Spin the Bottle,” directed by James Yerkes, about five childhood friends who gather for a reunion — that was screened at film festivals around North America this past year. Her New York Press column, “Female Trouble,” is being adapted as an animated sitcom for the Oxygen Network, a new cable channel for women. To keep the column sitcom, tentatively titled “All Over Amy,” distinct from the book — which Sohn, apparently wanting to go Candace Bushnell one better, would like to option for movie rights – she has changed certain details to make the animated sketch of her “real” life different from her novelized version of her “real” life. Sohn will be starring as herself in the sitcom in voice and in the resemblance of her animated version to her real self.

It’s as though Sohn is more a performance artist than novelist, as she pushes her personal life into public space in the context of every medium available to her: television, sex column, film, novel. She’s flush with success, her book party was filled to capacity and the interview offers continue to pour in.

“Thank God, I can finally relax.” Sohn says, looking liberated at the end of her party, as she leans back into a booth at Joe’s Pub, surrounded by male admirers. “Now that my parents have left, I can finally have a cigarette.”